Image of the Month

Press Reporters at the Telegraph Office in the House of Representatives Sending off Dispatches on the Opening Day of the Forty-Fourth Congress *

The House Of Representatives and the Telegraph
Everyone knows that the first words sent via telegraph were "What hath God wrought?" but what is largely untold is the resulting story of the House of Representatives' involvement in creating the telegraph network that bound together the rapidly expanding U.S. during the mid-19th century. During the 1830's Samuel Morse travelled across Europe and the United States in search of financial support for his new invention- a machine capable of transmitting information instantaneously through a metal wire over great distance, through the power of electro-magnetism.1 While Congress initially refused to back Morse's technology, in 1843, the House approved the expenditure of $30,000 for the creation of an operable telegraph line.2 The first line built stretched from Washington to Baltimore, and its first use was to transmit the news of Henry Clay's nomination for President by the Whig Party, hours before the news broke by conventional means. Despite the success of this first line, Congress remained reluctant to fund a nationwide telegraph system, and the technology was sold to private companies.3
These private companies quickly expanded the reach and coverage of the telegraph system, covering much of the eastern portion of the country. As the boundaries of the nation raced westward during the mid-century, communication between distant areas became an important national priority.4 Communication with the West had been a problem ever since it was taken from Mexico following the war and now that California was officially a state, convenient and regular communication between the East and West was essential. Private companies jumped at the opportunity, but balked when they realized maintenance costs would be too expensive. Once again reluctantly, the House and Senate took on responsibility for the creation of this transcontinental telegraph line. In the end, the legislation allowed for the government to contract the project to a consortium led by the Western Union Telegraph Company. Western Union made a deal to build its "half" of the line from Omaha, Nebraska to Salt Lake City, Utah, while a California consortium, known as the California State Telegraph Company, would build its "half" to Salt lake, having started construction in Carson City, Nevada.5 The two lines would meet in somewhere in the "middle," much like the Transcontinental Railway would do nearly ten years later.
In 1860, Congress finally funded the Western Union proposal for the transcontinental telegraph in the form of a $400,000 contribution.6 The 1,300 mile construction project was begun in July of 1861. As one of the first transcontinental government projects, difficulties abounded. The area between Omaha and Carson City was practically devoid of any American settlements, resulting in long periods of time where workers were isolated from society and far from supplies of fresh food and water. The environment was a challenge as well, with long expanses of desert in Nevada and the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and Utah territories to be covered. Even with these challenges, the project was completed in only four months when the East and West lines were joined on October 24th, 1861 in Salt Lake City. There was little fanfare for this momentous event due to the uncertainty of the completion date and the onset of the Civil War.7 Nevertheless, the impact of the telegraph's completion was instantaneous, having finally "[brought] California within the sphere of the other civilized countries of the world."8
The newly laid trans-continental line had important political effects from its inception. At the height of the Civil War in 1864, facing a chancy presidential election, Republican leadership in the House and Senate passed legislation enabling three new states to be quickly formed: Nebraska, Colorado and Nevada.9 All were solidly controlled by Lincoln supporters and, if recognized by Congress as states before the election, their electoral votes would help ease Lincoln's path to electoral victory.10 While only Nevada of the three voted for statehood and approve its constitution in time, even their was a close-run affair. To insure that the required documents were received in time, Nevada officials used the telegraph to wire its application for statehood to Washington before the election.11 Nevada's application was approved before the general election and the state voted solidly for Lincoln.12
By 1880, over 170,000 miles of telegraph wire crisscrossed the country, with hundreds of thousands more spanning Europe and parts of Asia.13 Upon Morse's death in 1872, the House of Representatives passed a concurrent resolution, honoring the inventor for his contributions to American innovation.


* Image: Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, (New York, NY) Saturday, December 18, 1875; pg. 244; Issue 1,055; col A (accessed at ProQuest, Nineteenth Century Newspapers database, October 14, 2010)
1 Edward L. Morse, "The District of Columbia's Part in the Early History of the Telegraph," Records of the Columbia Historical Society 3:161-179 (1900).
2 Morse actually offered to sell his patent and technology to Congress, as he felt that only the government would be capable of fully exploiting the idea and protect it from being controlled by monopolies.
3 Ronnie J. Phillips, "Digital Technology and Institutional Change from the Gilded Age to Modern Times: The Impact of the Telegraph and the Internet," Journal of Economic Issues 34: (2000) 272
4 One initial solution for this communication was the creation of the Pony Express system. Not surprisingly, two days after the successful completion on the transcontinental telegraph line, the Pony Express line folded. John Reinfeld, The Pony Express (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press) 1973, 122-25.
5 James Gamble, "Wiring a Continent," The Californian, January-June, 1881, 3
6 H.H. Goldin, "Governmental Policy and the Domestic Telegraph Industry," The Journal of Economic History 7: (1954) 54-55
7 Governmental Policy, 55.
8 Governmental Policy, 55-56.
9 Guy Rocha, "Myth # 12- Why Did Nevada Become a State?"" Nevada Department of Cultural Affairs website, State Library and Archives,, (accessed October 15, 2010).
10 Why Did Nevada Become a State
11 Why Did Nevada Become a State
12 Why Did Nevada Become a State
13 William M. Springer, "The Telegraph Monopoly," The North American Review 132 (1881): 369-382.